Informal Learning, Human Brains, & Cloud Computing

Informal Learning

I posted a few days ago about the Personal Economics of Social Media, and highlighted Intellagirl’s slideshow, How Social Media is Pushing Higher Ed into Identity Crisis. If you missed it, I highly recommend it.

In thinking about that post and the responses I received, I started to think about what exactly “informal learning” with social media looks like for me, and Igori’s comment led me to break down my personal social media use into the various toolsets I’m using. Each communication tool seems to represent a different kind of “head space” to me. In reality, I’m using many many software platforms, widgets, and technologies, but I think it can be broken down into a few broad categories.

Gmail is my nerve center. All the sensors, accounts, message boards, subscriptions, notices – all of my “stuff” out there on the internet alerts me when certain events take place that I may need to pay attention to, and if someone out on the net needs to reach me, that’s the surest way to get my attention. My family and closest friends are on my google contact list, where we IM each other, and Twitter is embedded in the window too. I glance at this screen probably hundreds or thousands of times a day. It is where I broadly monitor my whole network.

Twitter is a portal to shout outs, brief chats, announcements, news blurbs, and a finger on the pulse of my little corner of the internet. It’s my bustling town. I don’t know everyone personally anymore, it grew too big for that, but I know lots of folks, and I’m reassured to look out the window and see everyone out and about and doing things. If I feel like having a quick chat, asking a question, saying hi, whatever, Twitter is there. It tells me the world keeps on keepin on, and if anything urgent comes up, I’m sure they’ll let me know.

(I knew about Tim Russert dying within moments of it being leaked, for example, and shared in a collective moment of shock, grief, sadness, wondering who would take the lead in holding our government accountable on Meet the Press in his absence – we all felt that as soon as we heard, and we experienced the event in a collective way through Twitter. It’s perhaps another post to think about how those collective emotions can be experienced through short, text-only little bleats..)

Blogs are my newspapers, where I get more lengthy, formal information about what’s happening in my world. They also link to the “course materials” for my informal learning. Media of all sorts, videos, films, papers, reports, research – original sources or analyses of them. Some blogs are also discussion boards, I do some amount of peer review and feedback, lengthier Q&A, and if I want, I can email or talk directly to the author to follow up and learn more.

All of this is aggregated in Google Reader, where I manage subscriptions to the blogs and websites I have personally selected to read, as well as the shared posts from my colleagues, who highlight the best of the various blogs and sites that they are reading. It’s pretty efficient, and allows me to see a much broader cross-section of information than I could ever process on my own. I depend on my smartest friends to do some of that pre-processing for me.

Second Life is my office, my laboratory, my work space, my classroom. I try to apply the things I’m learning to this particular medium – what works best for communicating concepts, ideas, facts, information? How do you use a 3D virtual environment to teach, to explain, to inform? How do you build and sustain communities in this place? How effective are my previous attempts? What needs to be improved, changed, or perhaps deleted altogether?

Those are the main tools for my informal learning. On a typical day, at any given time, I have several Firefox windows open (Firefox is my primary Learning Management System), each with 15-20 tabs open representing all the places that I’m working, learning, or reading. One window is reserved for “stuff I want to read and think about later”, all the links from tweets and blogs and friends and emails that seemed interesting or important, and when it grows so big it starts to lag my machine down, I go over and winnow it down, skim through things, close anything that doesn’t seem so interesting after all.

And by the end of the day or the week, sometimes themes have emerged. My brain draws links between all this stuff I’ve seen and read and starts to connect dots between different sources. As I become more aware of the emerging theme, I start to self-select different sources around that theme. Whatever I scan, I’m especially interested in information that fills in gaps in my knowledge about that theme. Sometimes I find myself reading such technically complicated material that I wonder how the hell I got into reading this report that is confusing the heck out of me.

Each foray, I think, stretches my mind a little further. I feel like I am learning in little bits all the time, even while I am working, producing, creating, helping, whatever.

Human Brains & Cloud Computing

Injenuity said months ago that she thinks her technology use is changing the way she thinks, the way her brain is beginning to draw connections between things. I agree, I feel that sense, too. I was reminded of her comment several times as I explored the various sites I kept running into this week about how the brain works, and how the growth of human participation in web services is changing our conception of “the network” online.

The theme didn’t emerge from thinking consciously about how the brain works, but rather from an article in the New Yorker that appeared to be about people who suffer from a demonic sense of itching. Having just recovered from the worst mosquito bite attack I’ve had in years, an article about the irrepressible urge to scratch caught my attention. The blog poster who linked to this article had highlighted the following paragraph:

One morning, after she was awakened by her bedside alarm, she sat up and, she recalled, “this fluid came down my face, this greenish liquid.” She pressed a square of gauze to her head and went to see her doctor again. M. showed the doctor the fluid on the dressing. The doctor looked closely at the wound. She shined a light on it and in M.’s eyes. Then she walked out of the room and called an ambulance. Only in the Emergency Department at Massachusetts General Hospital, after the doctors started swarming, and one told her she needed surgery now, did M. learn what had happened. She had scratched through her skull during the night—and all the way into her brain.

Was this fiction? Could a person really scratch through their skull and into their brain? What on earth would drive someone to do that?

When I finally made time to read the full article, it turned out to not be just about itching, but also about an emerging theory of how the brain receives and associates information from our sensory perceptions, and how that in turn affects our perception of reality.

The account of perception that’s starting to emerge is what we might call the “brain’s best guess” theory of perception: perception is the brain’s best guess about what is happening in the outside world. The mind integrates scattered, weak, rudimentary signals from a variety of sensory channels, information from past experiences, and hard-wired processes, and produces a sensory experience full of brain-provided color, sound, texture, and meaning. We see a friendly yellow Labrador bounding behind a picket fence not because that is the transmission we receive but because this is the perception our weaver-brain assembles as its best hypothesis of what is out there from the slivers of information we get. Perception is inference.

This seemed like a very interesting thread, one that picked up again later when I saw that the Top 10 TED Talks had been released, including one by
neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor. (If you don’t know about TED Talks, be sure to check them out, they’re some of the best lectures available on the net, if you ask me.) In this talk, Jill describes – from a brain scientist’s perspective – what happened to her as she experienced a stroke and felt various brain functions shutting down one by one – it is absolutely fascinating.

And as I’m thinking about what all this new information about the brain means to ME and how it is applicable to my work, George Siemens sends out his weekly newsletter with a section about “Brain Based Learning”. Hmm, I wonder what that is, I think, and click on to read more. This lead me to a research paper, “The Seductive Allure of Neuroscience Explanations”, which concludes that people are generally much more likely to be satisfied by theoretical explanations that contain neuroscientific verbiage – even if it’s completely irrelevant – than by explanations, even good ones, that don’t contain neuroscientific verbiage; and a short 8-minute video about how often theorists incorrectly apply levels of analysis from neuroscience and cognitive psychology research to individual behavior, and to a child’s mind, and indeed to education as a whole.

By this point, I’m thinking wow, the brain is so complex! I go back to thinking about the “itch” article, and wonder if my evaluation of the “brain’s best guess” theory of perception was tainted by all of the neuroscientific data that was included in the article. I wish I had some experts in a room to discuss all these things I’ve just learned, because I find it interesting, but confusing, and I’m not sure how to apply this new knowledge in my own work, which is about teaching with technology.

And while I’m waiting for experts to magically appear and explain things, I run across a post on the Long Tail site about a brief article in Wired magazine that compares the “One Machine” (aka the internet and all of the computers and devices connected to it) to a human brain.

One Machine - Human Brain - Wired Magazine

Infographic: Christoph Niemann, Flash Design: officevsoffice

I think to myself that this isn’t the first time I’ve read about or considered the connections, similarities, and differences between this “ubiquitous cloud computing” concept and the human brain, but I don’t know if I really understand what is meant by “cloud computing”, so I find this fairly in-depth and technical article about the topic on InfoWeek, called, simply enough, Guide to Cloud Computing. (Warning, it gets pretty geeky in there, but if you want to put some finer edges on your understanding of the concept, it’s a good piece.)

This leads to me to think about how universities are using technology, or more accurately, implementing technology infrastructure and systems for students, faculty, and staff to explore all these new possibilities for publishing, searching, accessing, and receiving the vast quantities of information and ideas out there living on the web. And while I’m musing on this topic, I discover an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about Kansas State Cultural Anthropology prof Michael Wesch’s recent lecture “The Anthropology of YouTube” to the US Library of Congress. (Was that lecture recorded? Anyone have a link? Oh wait, I see it will be archived eventually at the Library of Congress website.)

I’ve posted about Michael Wesch’s work before, he was the creator of the now famous “The Machine is Us/ing Us” video that Wayne Porter and I connected over more than a year ago, and he talks about how YouTube, video-logging (vlogging), and the interaction people are getting online is changing people’s very sense of identity.

And THIS leads me to think about how I need to improve my machinima skills in Second Life, because I want to try using video has a mechanism to communicate various concepts I’m learning about, and I think I’ll feel more comfortable hiding behind my avatar than talking straight to a camera.

. . .

Why did I take you on this long journey? Is anyone even reading this still? I don’t know, but when we talk about “informal learning” and “social media” and what this means to us as educators, I sometimes don’t even know what these terms actually mean to anyone but myself. I know how I am using these tools, but I don’t know what the “best practices” are per se, nor the most effective ways to teach them to others. I think this little trip through Fleep’s Informal Learning Experience was maybe more for me than for an external reader, but as I think about all these topics I’m digesting, I keep returning to the thought that I want formal education at the university level to look more like THIS kind of learning than what I experienced in my undergrad courses.

With all due apologies for the length of this post, I hope if you’re still with me that you’ve learned something about the human brain, cloud computing, and how the web can facilitate “informal learning” that is very real learning about very real and important things. Look at all the fascinating, rich content that a passing curiosity about my mosquito bites itching led to..

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  1. Fleep, you’ve given me more to read and think about in the past 10 minutes than any individual has in a long time, perhaps due to the informal and friendly path you allowed me to share along the channels of your thought.
    thank you…

  2. great post – made me think about my own “social media universe/tools” and found some parallels to your thoughts.

    using the web makes me feel “more intelligent” .. being part of a collective form of intelligence .. the sum is more than it’s parts 🙂

    what I dream of is a more animated, space-oriented user interface for all this .. managing tabs and windows can’t really be it!

    regarding videos in SL: since expression of avatars (mimics, gestures) is still very limited this is not very efficient for communication – I would rather stick to real videos (.. as the TED talks) to convey messages

  3. Damn, Fleep, very thoughtful and interesting post. Have you read any of the stuff in the recent IEEE Spectrum about the singularity? I think there’s some stuff in there that you would find interesting and somewhat related to your thoughts here.

  4. I read your post Saturday but didn’t get a chance to reply. It’s always so comforting to meet someone who shares a similar thought process. I’m so glad you posted it in this format. My thoughts flow the same way, but I rarely document the process. There are a few other things I’ve come up with that affect this discussion.
    1. Maybe these tools just suit the natural brain functions of some of us and before they existed, we just weren’t using our minds productively. Maybe the tools facilitate the process we work best with anyway. From what I’ve observed, the people who tend to thrive in this environment, are those who’ve struggled their entire lives to figure out which side of the brain is dominant. So maybe our brain chemistry isn’t changing, we’ve just found a scaffold to help us organize our thoughts.
    2. There is not enough discussion about the design of these tools as they relate to brain function. I know many of them are created without regard to that, as they are developed for commercial purposes only, and any psychological consideration is centered around reward schedules. There is much to be said about value-sensitive design, and engineering applications with the intent to influence specific brain functions.
    Great post!

  5. […] Mike Wesch, author of another internet-famous video, The Machine is Us/ing Us. I mentioned this presentation a month or so ago and the video was finally posted last week. It was presented to the Library of […]

  6. Thanks for the information. You may be interested to know that Telstra – Australia’s biggest telco has just announced (on 17th August) a $500m investment into cloud computing which is pretty huge.